The board of the Newport Performing Arts Center has hired a national theater consultant, hopeful of revitalizing its fundraising efforts to restore the historic Opera House on Washington Square to its former opulence.

The restoration project has been ongoing for more than two decades, a massive project that once was projected to cost $26 million, and now has escalated considerably because of inflation and supply chain issues.

“We are truly excited about the recent positive support for this project,” said John Cratin, chair of the NPAC Board of Directors.  “The renewed energy ‘post Covid’ is becoming apparent and we anticipate seeing this project move to a new level in 2023!”

Cratin and his board are committed to restoring the theater, first opened in 1867 as a 1,217-seat performing arts center that in later years became a movie house, closing in 2010.

They are banking on the expertise of the Palmer Westport Group of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a national historic theater consulting firm, to help revitalize a fundraising effort that has apparently stalled in recent years. 

What’sUpNewp posed several questions to NPAC. While in many areas, NPAC was not specific, especially relative to funds raised, they did provide considerable insight into the organization’s efforts. Here is what they said:

What’sUpNewp: In March, you said it appeared costs had escalated 10 to 25 percent from the original $26 million budget. Is that still accurate, or have costs escalated further? What is the latest projection for the project’s total cost? You also indicated that with escalating costs, the board would have to consider streamlining the initial design, without sacrificing the audience experience. Additionally, you said that making “radical changes” to the design was unrealistic. Have there been revisions to the original design? What impact has inflation and supply chain issues played in escalating costs, and any delays in the timeline?

NPAC: While the overall scope of the project has not changed, we acknowledge that inflation and escalation will impact the final costs. We will continue to work with our contractor as the Capital Campaign progresses to monitor these factors.

What’sUpNewp: In March, you said the board’s focus was on fundraising. Has that been the case? How much has been raised in recent months? How much has been raised from individuals, government, corporations, grants? Who are the biggest donors?

NPAC: In August 2022, NPAC engaged the services of the Palmer Westport Group (PWG), a nationally renowned historic theater consulting firm, to assist us with our planning and fundraising.

PWG conducted a Planning Study in October during which PWG’s principal, Susan Palmer, tested the interest and capacity to support a campaign, and seek input on the organizational, programmatic, and architectural plans.

Susan presented her report to the NPAC Board and Review Panel in November. Her findings concluded that with professional planning and leadership, a campaign to complete the restoration would be supported and successful. Further, we are in the midst of our annual appeal fundraising which will conclude at year’s end. At that time, we will be able to apprise you on the success of that campaign.

Incorporating the findings and recommendations of the PWG Planning Study Report, we will resume a vigorous capital campaign effort in early 2023. Previous and future campaign donors will be consulted concerning their preferences for anonymity and/or publication of their gifts. We will proceed with publication of those gifts as directed by the donors.

What’sUpNewp: You were projecting a late 2023 re-opening, but more “realistically the spring of 2024.” Is that still the timeframe?

NPAC: The progress of our capital campaign will impact the schedule We will continue to work with our contractors for the most accurate estimates on project costs and timing.

What’sUpNewp: You had said the board was seeking some $4 million in federal and state tax credits and would be applying for grants. Did you receive the tax credits? And, if so, what was the breakdown of federal and state tax credits? If you haven’t received them, are you still hopeful of receiving them? Have you been applying for grants – which ones – and what grants If any, what have you received in grants?

NPAC – Yes, NPAC has qualified for historic tax credits. These cash funds are not allocated until the qualifying project components are completed and approved.

What’sUpNewp: Have there been any changes in personnel? Any changes in the board makeup? Leadership? Contractor, or architect?

NPAC: Regarding personnel, Melissa Quinn has been advanced to the position of Managing Director. Melissa will manage the organization’s administrative activities and provide support to the new capital campaign team. Melissa is a long-time Aquidneck Island resident, a graduate of Boston Conservatory (at Berklee) and, in addition to her professional administrative career, has performed as both Principal Clarinet and concert soloist for over 20 years with regional community orchestras and ensembles.

We expect to undertake a search for an Executive Director in 2023. Following the appointment of the successful candidate for that position, we will populate the remaining positions appropriately as we move closer to construction and opening.

We have also appointed to new board members in 2022. NPAC continues to develop its Board of Directors and is pleased to announce two new members recently elected to the board:

  • Christopher C. Bicho, an Aquidneck Island resident. Christopher joined the board in June of 2022. He is president of Landings Real Estate Group. He brings local and national finance and business experience to the board.
  • Edward Henry joined the NPAC Boad of Directors in August 2022 and recently stepped down from his position as President and CEO of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation after 15 years with the foundation. Ed brings extensive nonprofit and performing arts experience to the board and has owned a home in Newport since 2011.

The original contractor, architectural firm, and design team remain engaged and involved in the project.

What’sUpNewp: Has the city government been involved at all in the project? Any concessions from the city?

NPAC: Recently elected Newport City Councilor and Mayor Xaykham “Xay” Khamsyvoravong participated in the Planning Study interview in October. It is our understanding from the Planning Study findings that Mr. Khamsyvoravong is supportive of the project. He and our consultant, Susan Palmer, have communicated since his election and will schedule a meeting to discuss ways in which the city of Newport may appropriately involve itself in the project going forward. Any material outcomes of that meeting will be disclosed jointly by the city and NPAC.

What’sUpNewp: What impact has the pandemic had on the project?

NPAC: As was true most everywhere in the world, the project was rendered inactive during the pandemic. As we emerge from the impacts of the pandemic response, we have recognized two areas in which we will sharpen our focus:

  1. We have more distinctly articulated a commitment to inclusion, with a focus to serve the needs of all segments of the community – particularly the underserved community – and will be developing a programming slate that will encourage everyone to experience a relationship with the Opera House Theater. The Planning Study Report includes recommendations which will not only help us to welcome every segment or our population but will also help us establish ongoing relationships with children which are our audience members of the future.
  2. We have also recognized an opportunity of the increased year-round resident community. During COVID, second homeowners decamped from their more metropolitan locations to ride out the pandemic in their Newport homes to their delight (and ours). They discovered Newport is an exceptional community for year-round living and will be spending much more time here.

What’sUpNewp: Is this project still viable?

NPAC: Yes. The Planning Study Report demonstrated that our community would support a strategically constructed and professionally executed campaign. As this is NPAC’s intention for moving forward, we deem the project to be viable and we are advancing full steam ahead.

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal....